January 30, 2013

From Gerald R. Lucas

Headspace v. Meatspace
Is reality solely a product of meatspace? Some cyberpunks kick meatspace in the nuts.

For this week, we read James Tiptree, Jr.’s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” Vernor Vinge’s “True Names,” and William Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum,” “Johnny Mnemonic,” and “Burning Chrome.” We actually missed the planned readings for last week due to the MLK holiday; they were Philip K. Dick’s “Frozen Journey” and “We Can Remember It for you Wholesale,” and Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game.” Putting the Tiptree/Sheldon, Vinge, and Gibson pieces together brought me into a different headspace.

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Tradition: Reality as Meatspace

Considering the historical and cultural contexts of cyberpunk, I came up with a new entré into the genre. My “Meatspace v. Headspace” is a way of thinking about the new approaches to reality that cyberpunk literature allows. My thinking is thus (excuse me if I generalize a bit): the history of western civilization has defined reality by the external world mediated through the body. Progress was always measured by our physical taming of nature, which followed our mental understanding of it. By “nature,” I mean the external world and the accident of birth: race and sex.

This bottom-up approach to reality, then, heads in an evolutionary fashion to the age of microprocessing technology. This is manifest destiny’s westward expansion to tame the “old frontier,” both literally and figuratively. By settling the continent and making it conform to human order, the settlers also imposed new ideas to structure their environment and themselves: they were now “Americans.” Soon came a stronger government, military, industry, and corporations—with Science leading the way—that vied for a slice of the USA. They provided security in a centralized and totalizing view of what “America” should be, as it was built from the ground-up. This “American Dream” mythology still haunts us.

Meatspace conquers headspace: this seems to be the drive of Western civilization since its founding. Add science into the mix, and man’s ultimate achievement is also his ultimate threat: the atom bomb. After World War II, the meatspace juggernaut kept churning, expanding as to reach the moon. By this point, meatspace had travelled as literally as far as it could.

Enter the Headspace of Cyberpunk

While in many ways the totalizing force of “the American Dream” gains momentum, another force is at work. While science and technology turn toward outer space, much of it turns inward—toward measuring and mapping the small. The code of life and matter required new tools to understand, and over the next few decades (partially because of the Cold War), networked digital workstations began to link our institutions at the same time many began to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Tired of the totalizing headspace of the military-industrial, patriarchal complex (meatspace narratives), the countercultural movement began to define a new headspace—one which will be picked up by the creators of the personal computer and the writers of a new movement in science fiction.

Computers measure the infinite in the small—a reality of innerspace no longer mediated fully by the body. Their vision is not totalizing, but monstrously diverse. The freedom of their new virtual realities translates to their meatspaces. The cyberpunks take a top-down approach to reality: headspace defining the meatspace as the latter heads toward obsolescence. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the new bodies they create and the old ones they readily cast off.

The premiere story to address this shift is “The Gernsback Continuum.” Gibson’s interest is in what his narrator calls “the Dream”: a totalizing vision of a future America that never was—a future that had all the “sinister fruitiness of Hitler Youth propaganda.”[1] Here is the ultimate telos of meatspace: the Utopia. Not only does this vision reflect the Movement’s desire to revive the language of science fiction from the visions of Gernsback, but also about clearing our headspace from the totalizing visions of meatspace. What “The Gernsback Continuum” makes clear, too, is perhaps the impossibility of ridding ourselves completely of these past narratives. Meatspace still has a dangerous presence in cyberpunk literature, mostly in the form of multinational corporations and mafiosos trying to control the mind and body.

Who controls the future?

The large media corporation GTX tries to maintain control in Tiptree/Sheldon’s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In.” They go so far as to create their own bodies which they control via remote through their global network. These androgynous godlings are walking billboards of meatspace propaganda: they are the celebrities of the time literally owned and controlled by the corporate behemoth GTX, from the Olympos of their boardroom in the corporate tower. Delphi, a “waldo”—the “darlingest girl child you’ve ever seen” has been grown by the “flesh department” and is no more than a vegetable, is controlled remotely by P. Burke—the “ugly of the world.”[2] Through Delphi, P. Burke is able to live her dream: that of having a god’s body and its concomitant respect. However, the price, as the narrator suggests early on, is straight out of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. And, like in Ovid, it’s usually the women who pay most dearly for the whims of the gods. In an effort to control meatspace via headspace, the corporate masters of GTX did not count on the prodigy P. Burke. The irony here is that since she was one of the disposable people—living on the fringes of their meatspace—she was able to insert her own narrative, potentially changing the system through its inheritor Paul.

Similarly, Gibson’s “Burning Chrome” has an ambiguous outcome in the battle between worldviews. While console cowboy Bobby Quine and hardware wizard Automatic Jack are able to burn Chrome with the help of a hacked Russian program, they are unable to save Rikki from selling herself to the simstim meatspace for fashionable upgrades. Chrome represents the totalizing force of meatspace, defeated in one instance but victorious in another. In order to afford her upgraded eyes, Rikki becomes a zombie prostitute, where her mind is numbed while clients use her body for whatever they can imagine—or whatever the readers can imagine. Gibson is not specific, but implies the money she earned is was purchased at a high price and at the sacrifice of her body.

The eponymous protagonist of “Johnny Mnemonic” also sells a part of his meatspace to carry information. Gibson hints that this space is part of his brain, for when he transfers it, he enters an “idiot/savant” state, so he doesn’t process the information he carries. Johnny becomes the technozombie, a metaphor for the meatspace and headspace victory of an external authority—in this case the Yakuza.

Johnny—with the help of the upgraded Molly Millions—escapes into the land of the Lo Teks where he recovers the information in his head—both the Yakuza’s precious data and soon his own memories. The former he leverages, while the latter he decides to keep: “And one day I’ll have a surgeon dig all the silicon out of my amygdalae, and I’ll live with my own memories and nobody else’s, the way other people do.”[3] Johnny now lives off-the-grid in Nighttown and is on the way to regaining his own headspace, now armed with tools to resist his enemies. Rikki, however, has moved into the land of simstim—a high-tech Hollywood headspace of sorts, similar to that of Tiptree/Sheldon’s godling world of celebrity. This world, much like our own popular culture of the celebrity, will become written on her body, as she recodes her meatspace to fit that of simstim. While Johnny frees himself of another’s worldview, Rikki — like P. Burke — becomes a victim of it. However, these victims leave potentially changed warriors to carry on the resistance: Automatic Jack and Paul Isham.

Meatspace Obsolescence

Meatspace is not yet obsolete in the world of cyberpunk, but it becomes much less of a determining factor of identity. Whereas meatspace traditionally defines and controls the body through large institutional narratives where it received new offerings by the accident of birth, the new conception of headspace as relative and deliberate is shown as an increasingly viable alternative to identity. Accidents of birth—like race and sex—are mitigated through technologically augmented headspace in the visions of the cyberpunks. These virtual realities provide alternatives for (re)definition; however, these spaces are not immune to the influence of totalizing narratives. The physical “reality” becomes less important as the tools of virtual reality become more proficient at providing alternative spaces for exploration and recoding the body. This battle of narratives seems to be at the heart of most cyberpunk fiction.


  1. Gibson, William (1986). "The Gernsback Continuum". In Sterling, Bruce. Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. New York: Ace Books. p. 9.
  2. Tiptree, James, Jr. (1997). "The Girl Who Was Plugged In". In Hawisher, Gail E.; Selfe, Cynthia L. Literacy, Technology, and Society: Confronting the Issues. Upper Saddle Creek, NJ: Prentice Hall. pp. 450, 447, and 444.
  3. Gibson, William (1986). Burning Chrome. New York: Ace Books. p. 22.